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The beginning of “Hostiles” is dark pictorially and darker still as a spiritual landscape. The time is 1892, when the Indian Wars are winding down, and the place is a U.S. Cavalry fort in New Mexico, where scores of Native American prisoners languish in cages. If that’s not appalling enough, two soldiers reminisce at length about “the good days” of the conflict, when savagery was a way of life and one of the men, Capt. Joe Blocker—a remarkable portrayal by Christian Bale—may have taken more scalps than Sitting Bull himself. Scott Cooper’s fourth feature is most powerfully about what violence does to the soul: Joe is almost dead to the world, and to himself. Not quite, though. This harshly beautiful film is equally about his regeneration during the course of a journey that amounts to a parable of humanity trying to climb out of the pit of endless slaughter and retribution.

What precipitates the trip is a goodwill gesture from Washington. One of the prisoners, a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk, is terminally ill, and president Benjamin Harrison wants him and his family escorted back to their ancestral lands in Montana. (He’s played by Wes Studi, superb as always.) When Joe Blocker is chosen to lead the escort party, he refuses at first; far from dancing with wolves, the veteran Indian fighter would be protecting mortal enemies. But Joe comes around; he’s about to retire and his pension is on the line.

“Hostiles” expands its emotional horizons when the escort party crosses paths with Rosalie Quaid, a woman who’s been driven to the brink of madness by an Indian attack on her family; she’s played quite wonderfully by Rosamund Pike. The pace is deliberate, though it’s punctuated by shocking spasms of violence, and the radiant cinematography, by Masanobu TAKA-YANAGI, does full justice to magnificent vistas along the way. (I can say that because I saw the film as it was meant to be seen at the Telluride Film Festival last fall. When I saw it again at an AMC multiplex in Santa Monica, the projection was so disgracefully dim that you might have thought the theater hadn’t paid its electricity bill.

Starting with a vision of the American West as a land ruled by brute force, “Hostiles” holds out the possibility of healing—of the aggrieved coming to see that their enemies have souls and consciences, just as they do; of unthinkable alliances being forged, if only temporarily, for the common good (distinctions are drawn between the Cheyenne, who have certainly done their share of killing, and other tribes that cling more fiercely to savage ways; Yellow Hawk says the Comanches are “not of sound mind.”) The whole drama is played out on the taut face of Joe Blocker, a man who confronts the brute he’s become, only to discover that his insides haven’t died after all.

Photo courtesy of Hostiles Movie